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Wendy Tatum

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    Birmingham, Alabama
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    In 2022, I took a step back from ad agency life to focus on writing a fictional story inspired by a friend who nearly lost her battle with depression and the 83-year-old pistol who saved her. By shining a warmer light on mental illness, I hope to celebrate those who find laughter in the darkness and healing in the process.

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  • About Me
    I am a copywriter/creative director, co-owner of an internationally recognized advertising firm, co-author of a published humor book and a historical book created for Alabama’s Bicentennial Commission. My copywriting experience has elevated a number of national brands, and my editorial work has appeared in Southern Living, Cooking Light, and Coastal Living. As a board member of the non-profit GirlSpring, I actively serve to empower girls through creative writing. I hold a BA in English and Marketing and reside in Birmingham, Alabama, with my husband/business partner and our precocious pug puppy Duke.
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  1. Antique doors tower over a long hallway. Just as Aunt Mary had described, not exactly tacky but a bit much. Rumor has it, those doors were ripped out of a Tuscan chapel, shipped to Alabama, and crane-hoisted up eight floors to the penthouse. “I tell you what,” she’d said. “When Lottie Gallant wants something, nothing's sacred.” I powerwalk to the end of the hall and press the doorbell before I chicken out. No answer. I look around. Not one thing about these old church doors matches the common areas of this 1980s contemporary-style building. The other basic doors lining the corridor crouch in the shadow of the dark ten-foot arch. I press again. This time for three long seconds. What do I have to lose? Kenny thinks this is a terrible idea. He was half-dressed for work and barefoot in the driveway, reiterating his unasked opinion when I slammed my car in reverse. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have peeled out and dusted the poor guy in a raincloud of pea gravel. But, in my defense, if my husband doesn’t know by now that a surefire way to get me to do something is to tell me it can’t be done, that’s on him. I’m gunning for it. I press Lottie’s doorbell again. Finally, heels click the floor on the other side of the door. The peephole goes dark. It goes light, and then I hear clicking away. She is eighty-three. Why and how is she wearing heels? I pound hard on the door with the padded side of my fist, but that hurts, so I whack the heavy circular knocker four times. Same thing. Click-click-click to the door, dark peephole, light peephole. Footstep clicks fade away. Kenny could be right. Dragon Lady might not let me into her world. Nope. This is an act of kindness. I’m taking Lottie to lunch if it kills me. I make a hand-megaphone around the peephole. “Lottie, it’s Elle.” A hushed shout startles me. “You’re fogging it up.” A woman with dyed black hair peers through one of the boring beige doors cracked open to my right. “And Lottie hates that.” “Oh. I’m Elle. Lottie’s great-niece.” “Never seen you before,” she whispers with questionable authority. I smile a little too widely. Her door snaps shut. The deadbolt clacks. I turn back. Lottie stands statuesque, framed by the arch of the doors, clutching the handles of her handbag with both hands. Her tepid expression speaks volumes, but the embroidered pink rose peeping through the V of her black blazer says cheerful—bubbly, even. “Do not engage with that busybody,” Lottie barks, ensuring the woman hears through the door. “Her preoccupation with me is exhausting.” Perhaps I’d misread the T-shirt vibes, but she’s cautious—protective, even. The neighbor might be deranged. As Lottie unlatches the flap of her handbag and digs out her keys, I admire her glossy white hair. It’s pulled back tight, giving her forehead and the top sides of her cheeks a slight lift. A silk camellia fastened to a doughnut-shaped bun adds a touch of whimsy. While Lottie forces her key into a reluctant lock, I wrestle the pointy end of my bra’s underwire out of my soaked underarm. Then it hits me. I haven’t spoken yet. How rude. Clearing my throat, I screech with too much emphasis on the question. “Ready to get some lunch?” Lottie's keys drop into her purse with a jangly thud. “If we must. We’re going to Burger.” “A burger’s good.” “Not having a burger. I’m having chicken at Burger,” she huffs. “I’ve got a booth there.” She strides past me. Her pace is brisk, her posture perfect. I trot behind. “Oh, you mean Burger Bliss. They take reservations?” She doesn’t respond. While she waits under the entryway, I pull the car around. We exit the gates, and I ask, “Window down? It’s nice out. Never know what Birmingham will serve up in May. Right?” “Window shut. Humidity is hell on my hair.” I sneak a glimpse of my head in the rearview. No frizz. Just a side slick of sweaty bangs. Weaving the car down the switchback road, I recall seeing the condo building atop Red Mountain many times from the valley below. When the sun angles just so, the glassy gem sparkles with hints of gold, white, and emerald green. A tiara pressed into a leafy puff of trees. The road flattens as we approach a four-way, and Lottie shouts, “You! Stop!” I stomp the brake pedal. “Oh, my God. You okay?” Lottie points at an overly spray-tanned man in a white G-Wagon, rolling through the stop sign to our left. “No, Mister. No. It is not your turn.” She looks at me and softens her tone. “I was telling him. Not you. Now you go. It’s your turn. Not his.” At the next intersection, Lottie cranes her neck and watches the adjacent light go from green to yellow to red. Before I have time to move my foot from the brake to the gas, she yells, “Go. You go now.” I chuckle to myself and turn on to Creekview. Lottie’s eyes bounce around the interior of my car. “Mary said you’re out of work. An Infiniti is rather spendy.” “It’s a demo. My husband is a sales manager at Vroom and brings them home every week or so. He prefers the old F-150 his granddad left him, so I get to drive the fun cars.” Lottie drums her fingers on the armrest, “Speed limit is forty-five on this stretch.” “Going fifty-two.” I point to the dash. “Barely.” She drawls out the first half of the word. “You take this backseat-driver business seriously.” I grin at my joke, but she doesn’t. “I’m seated in the front.” We stop at another light. “You know what I mean.” I force a giggle, which sounds fake, but Lottie’s too busy leaning over the dash, locking her eyes upward to notice. “Yours is about to go green. Be ready this time.” I hit the gas. We speed forward, and Lottie laughs, but only for a second. We wheel into the Burger Bliss parking lot, and Lottie punches her finger in the direction of a space by the entrance. “There’s an open spot. Quick. Pull in there.” “Happy to let you drive on the way back,” I say, reaching between the seats to grab my backpack from the floorboard. “Oh, heavens no. I’m a horrible driver.” She pats my shoulder. “Listen, I have an account here. However, you’ll need to pay for your own.” “I was going to treat—” I start to say, but she’s already out of the car. I jump out and shuffle behind as she flings open both glass doors and sashays up to the counter. The girl working the register tightens the high ponytail sprouting through a red sun visor. “What will you be having today, Ms. Lottie? Cheeseburger, no bun, all the way? Or chicken fingers with sweet potato waffle fries?” “Chicken today. Where’s Oliver?” The cashier takes a deep breath and taps in the order. “In his office. Paperwork.” “Well, please go and get him. I want him to meet Evelyn.” I glance at the cashier’s name tag. “Hi, Brittney. Actually, my name is Elle. Lottie’s great-niece. Cheeseburger all the way, with the bun, please.” I turn to make sure Lottie heard the name correction and the relation reference, but she’s halfway to the drink station. I slap three fives on the counter. “Keep the change, Brittney. Wait. Who’s Oliver?” “Owner. She’s got a thing for him.” An open-mouth sigh exposes apple-green gum on the roof of her mouth. I hurry over to the drink station. Lottie fills a tumbler with ice and unsweet tea before grabbing a handful of lemon wedges from a plastic container. She holds each slice up to the light, one by one. This takes forever. After dropping the wad of rejected lemons back into the same container, she scrapes way down to the bottom in search of fresher options. A line is forming behind us. My scalp breaks out in a prickly sweat. Lottie finally settles on three suitable lemon wedges and meticulously removes the seeds with her pinky nail, flicking each one back into the lemon bin. I cast an apologetic smile at the teenage girls behind me. Both have blue-tipped hair and are ballooning out their cheeks in frustration. My heart lurches into a pounding jog as Lottie takes her sweet time squeezing the juice from each individual lemon into her tea. She slings the mangled rinds back in with the fresh lemons and strolls to her booth. Sweat drips from my hairline. “Sorry. So sorry,” I mutter to the teens and frantically fish out the manhandled lemons, tossing them in the trash. I pick up our order and slide down the bench across from Lottie. “You like my booth?” She asks. Framed autographed headshots from her movie days and a few group photos with her sisters from the 1950s line the brown beadboard. Lottie gestures with her waffle fry at a photo on my side. “That’s Joanie. She was an actress too. Not Hollywood famous like me, but she did a few plays at the Town and Gown.” “You’re all so lovely.” I stare at the photos, unwrapping my burger. The four Gallant sisters are blond, buxom, big-haired beauties, but Lottie stands out as the true star. Her effortless elegance shines through, even in faded black and white. Lottie swivels from side to side, looking for what I assume to be Oliver. She picks up the plastic cutlery and scrapes the breading off a chicken finger. “May I ask what that atrocity is on your wrist?” She says, still shaving away without looking up. Sliding my bracelet stack up my forearm, I display my inner wrist. “It’s a Caduceus.” She takes a quick glance and gets back to work on the breading. “Medical symbol,” I explain. “I know what a Caduceus is. Why is it on your wrist?” “I’m a nurse. Was a nurse.” I swallow a big bite of burger. “Please don’t talk with your mouth full.” I wash the rest down with a gulp of Diet Coke. “In Greek mythology, the intertwined snakes possess benevolent properties. The rod was believed to cure a patient with a single touch. The snakes also symbolize fertility. But not in my case,” I trail off, regretting the last bit of info. She holds up the naked chicken finger for closer inspection. “You can’t have children?” I shake my head. Her eyes leave the dangling chicken to scan my face. “You’re young enough.” “I’m thirty-seven. Kenny and I married three years ago. Well, three years in June. Our anniversary is next month.” Lottie tilts her head. “And?” She lands hard on the last letter and the question mark. “Anyway, started trying right away. Found out a few months ago I’m perimenopausal.” My fingernails dig into the edge of the bench. “And you thought inking snakes onto your wrist would change God’s mind about that?” Water pools in my lower lids. I blink it away, vowing to edit myself going forward. “It’s henna ink. Washes off in the shower.” “Well, you are a Gallant, after all.” She dabs the corners of her lips with the folded points of her paper napkin. “Every Gallant is either screwed or tattooed.” “Ain’t that the truth,” I dip a wad of fries in the ketchup puddle next to my burger. Lottie moves her handbag from the seat to the table, pulls out a compact, and pats her nose. Time to change the subject. “Love your Gucci Horsebit bag. Vintage right? Let me guess: 1955?” Her lingering look at my GAP dress says as if you know anything about handbags. I brush a patch of lint off my chest. “I’m not the designer handbag type,” I say, annoyed at the apology in my voice. “My mom’s a sucker for handbags. We’d shop around a lot in Atlanta when I was a kid. I appreciate the craftsmanship of a nice bag. Also, I collect old fashion magazines from the forties and fifties, so I’m familiar with most styles. Usually get them on eBay, the magazines, not handbags. It’s fun to make things with the illustrations—gift tags, note cards, sometimes frame the old ads, stuff like that.” I should stop rambling, but it doesn’t matter. Lottie’s not listening. She’s giving someone the stink-eye over my shoulder. “Well, if it isn’t the Glutens. Pretend we don’t see them.” I whip around. The restaurant is full. A middle-aged couple holds their trays and scopes the place for a table. They’re both short, heavyset, and wearing matching coral golf shirts. “Why’d you look? Stay put. We’re not rewarding those booth stalkers.” “It’s cute how they’re dressed alike. You know them?” “I’ve had run-ins with those two. They need to focus on their gluten intake rather than my booth.” Her voice fades under her breath. “Fatty chins hovering right over us.” “Oh, the Glutens. I get it.” Then I murmur, “Kind of harsh.” “Well.” She folds her napkin into an even smaller square and creases the edges with a zip of her fingernails. “I’d never call them that to their faces. Besides, do not let those chubby cherub grins fool you. They are not nice.” Her eyes land on my lower face. “You know, dear, you could cut back on wheat and calories as well.” My chest cavity slumps into my stomach. I reach up and press the underside of my chin with the back of my hand. A common side-effect of depression is loss of appetite. The opposite is true for me. I’ve been eating my feelings for the past year, about fifty pounds worth. “Trust me, I know.” My voice runs off a cliff. I push away my tray. “Let’s talk about something else, shall we?” She drops the napkin square beside the food she’s hardly touched. “You should wear your hair up like that more often. Show off those pretty blue eyes and those long lashes.” I’m about to thank her for the compliment, but she’s not finished. “As I recall, at Thanksgiving, you wore it down. It was hanging in your face. The golden highlights seem natural, but it’s a tad unruly. You should update your look. Too much hair and too many tattoos. Is that a crooked arrow on the back of your neck?” “Lightning bolt, and it’s henna ink.” “Nonsense. I wasn’t born yesterday. I know a permanent blight when I see one. A lightning bolt, of all things.” “Long story, actually.” “For another time.” She slides her tray in my direction. “Have the counter-girl box this up.” She slaps both hands on the table, shimmies down the bench, and hops to her feet. “We can go now. The Glutens landed a high-top.” “You hardly ate.” I glance over at the counter. Brittney waves a Styrofoam box surrender-style above her head. She knows the drill. “I’ll have the leftovers for dinner. Not that it’s any of your concern.” I retrieve the to-go box and fill it with Lottie’s lunch. “Please hurry, Ellen,” Lottie snaps. “Elle. It’s Elle,” I say as politely as possible, folding the box shut. “Well then, Elle. We need to go. Wheel is about to be on.” I follow her to the door. “Wheel?” She deep-sighs without turning around. “Of. Fortune.” “Love Wheel of Fortune.” Before I can stop myself, I blurt, “Want some company?” “Not today.” It’s a quiet drive back to her place, and I offer to walk her up. She pops out onto the walkway. “Can manage myself.” Lowering the passenger-side window, I shout, “Had fun at Burger. Enjoy Wheel.” After a few measured steps, she spins around. “Next Wednesday. Same time.” *** The entire way home, I suppress the urge to call Kenny. I’ll wait until he calls me first to apologize for the driveway squabble. I’m still annoyed with the tone he’d used. Soft and controlled, which always grates on my nerves. He sounded like Michael Bublé offering up unsolicited advice in a non-singing voice. “Come on, babe. Stop trying to backfill your childhood. You’re only creating a sinkhole of rejection.” “It’s just freaking lunch, Kenny!” My pitch had been more in the vein of Travis Scott screaming, “I wanna see you F—ING rage, Coachella!” “But you’ve only been out of the—" “—for eight days,” I’d finished his sentence, skipping over the part I didn’t want to hear. When he said, “Why Lottie? Of all the awful Gallants, she’s the worst,” I pointed out that she’d never even spoken two words to him, so how would he know? And he shot back with, “Precisely. Or to you.” Then he tried being all sweet with, “Look, Elle, I get you obsessed over her as a kid.” After I explained intrigued was a more suitable term, he insinuated a manic swing might be at play. “But why now? Last week, you couldn’t crawl out of a pile of laundry.” I clarified the sofa-time was justified following a thirty-day stint with a bunch of lunatics. That part was required to keep my nursing license. I’d quit my job anyway, so a gigantic waste of time. As for integrating drug rehab into the treatment, I blamed Kenny. “For the love of God, Elle. You swallowed a fist full of painkillers.” “To die, not to get high.” When I yelled, “And it was on my bucket list,” his face went sad, which means he still doesn’t find it amusing when I say that. Forgive me for trying to lighten things up. He told me we’d rewrite the list. Nope. “Too late. Already revamped.” Kenny’s hands shot up and covered his face. A beat later, fingers splayed out and opened like a Venus Flytrap. His eyes and mouth made an inverted triangle of saucer-sized Os. This usually signals some big revelation. “El—le?” Elongating my name is another indicator. “Is winning over Lottie Gallant—is winning over your dad’s family—are those on your list?” “She’s a lonely old lady.” “She’s the Dragon Lady from Hell.” Allowing my brain to replay the scene was a mistake because now I have no choice. I snatch up my phone from the cupholder and call Kenny. He answers, and I sing, “Pretty-sure-Lottie-likes-me,” to the tune of Nanny-Nanny-Booboo. A sudden whoosh of embarrassment droops my shoulders. His silence is deafening.
  2. WINNING AND LOSING LOTTIE GALLANT Women's Fiction 1. THE ACT OF STORY STATEMENT Escape suicidal thoughts and gain acceptance by winning the affection of an ornery, aging icon 2. THE ANTAGONIST PLOTS THE POINT For decades, and from afar, Elle has obsessed over her great-aunt Lottie. As a child, Elle spent hours poring over gossipy tabloid clippings and glossy photos of Lottie on the pages of People, Time, Town and Country, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times. While Elle’s main antagonistic forces are childhood trauma, mental illness, abandonment, and suicidal ideation, Lottie appears to embody everything Elle lacks as she approaches middle age. Even at the ripe old age of 83, Lottie is larger than life, bold, brave, glamorous, and highly revered by the Gallants (Elle’s long-lost father’s side of the family). Elle attempts to win over the Gallants by befriending the ill-tempered old spitfire. And for a brief time, Elle is able eclipse her suicidal thoughts with tales of Lottie’s adventures as Hollywood’s Alabama darling, Wall Street’s she-wolf seductress, and the mischievous mistress of Big Oil’s high society. The fabulous memories keep Lottie alive in another sense. Even though Lottie believes in Heaven, it sounds boring, and she has no interest in going anytime soon. For a while, Lottie’s tales empower Elle. But Lottie’s judgmental jabs begin to snag the few threads of sanity Elle has left, and her world further unravels as Lottie’s dementia unspools deeper truths. 3. CONJURING YOUR BREAKOUT TITLE WINNING AND LOSING LOTTIE GALLANT ANYWHERE BUT ME ONE GOOD REASON TO STAY 4. DECIDING YOUR GENRE AND APPROACHING COMPARABLES GENRE: Women’s Fiction COMPARABLE TITLES: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – Quirky unreliable narration, off-beat humor, delusional external goals, questionable heroes, unlikely friendship, and head-strong female character grappling with mental health issues and twisty family dynamics Hacks HBO Max’s series –Complicated friendship, comedic banter between opinionated women from different generations, spicy showbiz secrets, and ruthless ambition of an older character 5. CORE WOUND AND THE PRIMARY CONFLICT HOOK LINE (LOGLINE): When a suicidal nurse retreats into an old Southern spitfire’s tales of shaking up Hollywood, Wall Street, and Big Oil, she struggles to find meaning in madness and purpose in life. OR An unemployed nurse leaves psychiatric treatment and escapes suicidal thoughts with an aging icon’s tales of shaking up Hollywood, Wall Street, and Big Oil. But as dementia blurs reality, she uses her overactive imagination to reboot the old woman’s memories. 6. OTHER MATTERS OF CONFLICT: TWO MORE LEVELS CONDITIONS FOR INNER CONFLICT: Elle suffers from depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, and suicidal ideation. She is traumatized by a childhood accident that killed her great grandmother and is convinced the tragedy was her fault and the reason for her father’s abandonment. She is angry with God over her infertility and a myriad of other issues. Elle became a nurse to help people and to fill her life holes with healing. But now she’s unemployed, broke, and can barely make her way out from under the pile of laundry on her sofa. Just three weeks out of psychiatric treatment for attempted suicide, she’s offered a full-time job as her great-aunt Lottie’s caretaker. Elle is fully aware of her emotional instability, and deep down she knows her husband is right—she’s not well enough to handle Lottie’s controlling, overbearing, judgmental, and often cruel demeanor. However, Elle is desperate, impulsive, and she convinces herself that the characteristics of a good nurse (caring, selflessness, and humor) will prevail to win Lottie’s affection. Approval is paramount to Elle, and the job offer could be the solution she’s looking for. Maybe her father’s family finally accepts her. INNER CONFLICT SCENARIO At the end of the first act, Elle’s husband Kenny comes home for lunch, and she’s hell-bent on convincing him that working for Lottie is a good idea. Armed with the semi-approval of her therapist and encouragement of her mother to counterweight Kenny’s opposition, Elle presents him with the job offer details. Kenny pleads with Elle to decline the offer, and Elle presses on. But when Kenny takes a bite of his chicken bruschetta, leaving a cheese remnant lodged in his mustache, Elle is immediately distracted but tries to focus. She tells herself it’s just cheese. As they argue, Kenny strokes his mustache, moving the cheese around, and Elle’s OCD and ADHD kick into high gear. When Kenny gets up and heads to the door, saying they’ll discuss the matter further at the end of the day, Elle explodes. “I am a grown up. And you, mister perfect, have cheese in your mustache. It’s hanging there like a booger—a white stringy booger. I have come so far in these last few weeks. Why the hell are you the only one who hasn’t noticed?” Kenny turns around. “Well, I’ll tell you one thing I have noticed. You’re wearing two left sandals right now.” He bolts out and slams the door behind him. Elle drops her head and looks at her sandals—one is a flat, black leather flop with jewel embellishments, and the other is taupe and has a buckle strap and small heel. “I am doing it!” She yells at no one. Elle snatches up her phone. “I’d be honored to take the position. When do I start? Sure. That day and time works for me.” She looks around the kitchen. Can’t find a pen. Can’t find paper. It's okay, she’ll remember. SECONDARY CONFLICT SCENARIO Shortly after Elle starts the job, Lottie’s dementia progresses and presents several challenges. Lottie’s cruel comments become more frequent and more difficult to ignore. Elle rallies by putting her playful creativity and childlike imagination to work as she attempts to ride out the dementia rollercoaster. But when Elle learns her father has suffered a heart attack, Lottie delivers a hateful comment that cuts to the bone. Elle quits her job and flies to San Diego to visit her weak and remorseful father, who offers a questionable olive branch. As she collides with an icy stepmother, and connects with a suicidal half-brother she never knew existed, Elle loses her slippery grip on sanity. 7. SIGNIFICANCE OF PRIMARY SETTING – BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA Much of the story unfolds in Birmingham, Alabama. Known as the “Magic City” and the “South’s best kept secret,” Birmingham’s population exploded in the early 1900s after prospectors discovered it to be the only place on Earth where the three elements necessary to produce steel were naturally abundant. Decades later, this boomtown became a controversial hotbed for the civil rights movement. Out of its fiery past, the area rose from the ashes and created a lively arts and theatre scene, a world-class medical research and healthcare hub, with an eclectic collection of architecture, outdoor recreation, boutiques, and high-end department stores. The city is noted for its cuisine that includes James Beard award-winning chefs and restaurants, down-home burger and Bar-B-Que joints, and Southern soul food. The story’s primary setting helps personify how the narrative’s backdrops compare and contrast in conjunction with the concept of finding light in the darkness and varying perspectives on life. The colloquial slang and characters, history, food, hilly topography, and creative culture all work together to drive Elle and Lottie’s backstories and current journeys. Located in the north central part of the state, along the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Birmingham’s tree lined crests offer various views of vibrant city life, lush green valleys, and flowing river and streams. Elle grew up in the nearby suburbs and now lives with her husband in a small craftsman-style bungalow a few miles from Birmingham’s Southside and downtown’s city center. The landscape is symbolic of Elle’s internal and external conflicts—peaks and valleys of anxiety and depression, the ups and downs of Lottie’s dementia, her steep and winding quest for acceptance, and what she sees as a flawed life. Lottie views life from a different perspective than Elle. She is a perfectionist who sees flaws as challenges, growth opportunities, and as an important part of God’s greater design. As Lottie notes to Elle, “We all have cracks in our valleys. Rivers flow through the cracks and have the power to reshape landscapes.” Lottie grew up in the fictional small town of Poplin two hours north of Birmingham. Lottie has family, history, and deep roots in this region. While Lottie misses her larger-than-life younger years in more glamorous cities, Birmingham was her stepping stone out of a boring life as a poor, country preacher’s daughter in Poplin. The character of the city mirrors her own—vibrant, unexpected, industrious, adventurous, creative, picturesque, historically controversial, and built of steel. Lottie’s ambition as a young beauty queen launched her trajectory of success. A pageant scholarship led to her beloved college days at Birmingham’s Samford University. She is a generous donor to the arts department. Campus buildings bare her name, and there is a table in the dining hall with a brass plaque engraved with the words: Reserved for Lottie Gallant Caperton, at all times. After graduating from Samford, Lottie carved out a showbusiness career in Hollywood in the 1950s, before moving to New York in the 1960s to become a stock broker. She later traveled the world with her oil tycoon husband Tom Caperton. After Tom passed, Lottie sold her Chicago apartment overlooking Lake Michigan and her second homes in New York, Palm Desert, and Los Angeles, and relocated to Birmingham. Over Thanksgiving dinner, Elle notes through interiority: My heart sank for Lottie. After her husband Tom died, she’d moved back to Birmingham to be close to her three sisters, and they’d all since passed away. She was now sentenced to live out her not-so-golden years surrounded by a watered-down batch of Gallants who were tasked with looking after her. It was clearly a job no one wanted. SAMPLE SETTINGS IN BIRMINGHAM HALLWAY OUTSIDE OF LOTTIE’S PENTHOUSE REFLECTS ELLE’S DESPERATE DETERMINATION AND LOTTIE’S LOOMING DOMINATION The antique, arched doors loom over the long and unnecessarily wide hallway. Just as Aunt Mary described, not exactly tacky but a bit much. “Lottie had those double doors ripped right out of an ancient Tuscan chapel and shipped to Alabama,” she’d said. “I’ll tell you what, when that woman wants something, she spares no expense.” Elle power walks down the hall, noting that nothing about the ornate church doors matches the empty common areas of this 1980s contemporary-style building. The basic beige doors lining the colorless corridor crouch in the shadow of the dark, ten-foot arch. Elle rings the doorbell with no response at first. Finally heels click and the peep hole goes dark then light, and heels click away. Elle presses the doorbell again, this time for three long seconds. Same thing. Click-click-click to the door, dark peephole, light peephole. Footstep clicks fade away. Elle pounds hard on the door with the padded side of her fist, but that hurts, so she whacks the heavy circular knocker three times. She makes a hand-megaphone, presses it against the peephole and calls for Lottie. A whisper-shout startles her from behind, “You’d better stop.” Elle turns around. An elderly woman with dyed black hair peers through a cracked-open door across the hall. “You’re fogging up the peephole. Lottie hates that.” Elle tries to engage, but the woman’s door snaps shut, and the deadbolt clacks. Elle turns back around. Lottie stands in the hall, framed by the archway, clutching the handles of her black handbag. A thick embroidered red rose on her white T-shirt peeps through the V of her black pinstriped blazer. Her glossy white hair is pulled back tight, giving her forehead and top sides of her cheeks a slight lift. A black silk camellia is fastened to the side of a flawless, doughnut-shaped ballet bun on the crown of her head. LOTTIE’S APARTMENT - ELLE IS IMMERSED INSIDE LOTTIE’S WORLD VISUAL INSIGHTS INTO LOTTIE’S CUNNING NATURE, LARGER-THAN-LIFE PRESENCE, AND GLAMOROUS PAST Passing through the double doors is surreal. It’s like entering another dimension, a different world, set in another time and place. Lush with rich, intricate patterned wallpaper, heavy velvet drapes, extravagant touches of gold, bright-white shellac, it’s a palace squeezed into an eighth-floor penthouse overlooking the city. A seven-foot portrait of Lottie greets Elle in the foyer. She’s stunning and fierce, in her late thirties or early forties and wearing a silver satin blouse, matching pants, and dime-sized diamond earrings. Her hands rest with intention just below her waistline. Her eyes are sensual and searing, and her lips are slightly parted and glossy. “You like my portrait?” Lottie asks. “It wasn’t painted from a photograph. I posed for it. That’s the best way to capture a person’s true soul.” Elle is mesmerized and says it looks like Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Bacall had a badass offspring. Lottie tells her the painting was commissioned in the mid-seventies and hung in her downtown New York office. “They called me the She-Wolf of Wall Street.” In the living room, other oil paintings of naked people and oversized black-and-white photographs of famous people cover almost every inch of wall space. Blue-and-white china and smaller photos in fancy frames fill every nook of her floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on the far wall. The furniture is a mix of French antiques and art-deco Hollywood glam. Somehow it works. ESTRANGED-FAMILY THANKSGIVING AT ELLE’S AUNT MARY’S HOUSE - THE FIRST TIME ELLE’S SEEN LOTTIE IN 30 YEARS DEMONSTRATES LOTTIE’S DISMISSIVENESS AND JUDGMENT AND ELLE’S DESPERATE NEED FOR BELONGING Lottie strolls into the dining room, wearing black pants, a black high-neck lace blouse, and an enormous silk-organza saucer hat, also black. A small, black Chanel Camellia Pochette swings from her wrist, and a can of Del Monte peaches rests in the crook of her elbow. Elle reads her message loud and clear. Nothing says, I have better shit to do than plopping a store-bought pie into the hands of an exhausted hostess. But showing up with a dusty pantry staple, now that’s a much bolder statement. You’re just lucky I showed the hell up. Lottie crosses the room, smoothes her coat over the back of a chair, and perches herself on the rounded arm. Still holding her handbag and the can of peaches, her posture rigid and her lips pursed. Her eyes move to all points of the room, taking in the small-talk scenes of distant, and not-so-distant, family members. Elle introduces her husband Kenny to Lottie. Lottie’s brown eyes peer from her hat brim, tracing the crumpled edges of Elle’s denim duster down to the scuffed toes of her Doc Martens. Lottie’s eyes then shoot up to scan Kenny’s handlebar mustache from one looped end to the other. Lottie lets out a “Humph,” and focuses her gaze elsewhere. After Kenny politely excuses himself, Elle attempts to engage with Lottie, offering to fetch a crystal serving dish for her peaches or a glass of Kenny’s famous Limoncello. Lottie ignores her, but Elle can’t tear herself away from the woman she’d obsessed over since childhood. Lottie’s white-tipped fingernails tap out a familiar tune on the lid of her can of peaches. Elle tries to guess it in her head. Is it from Rent? No. It’s “You Sexy Thing” or the Jaws theme song. Ooh, sounds a bit like Duran Duran’s “The Reflex.” Nope. That’s not it. I give up. Elle asks if Lottie is cold, and wiggles her shoulder out of her duster, but shrugs it back up after Lottie’s eyes roll. Seven kids, all under the age of eight and all wearing their puffy jackets, eat at the wicker table on the screened-in porch, just out of earshot of the adult table. Fifteen adults cram around the dining room table made for twelve with a mix of wooden chairs from the kitchen and linen slipcovered dining chairs. Some cousins look vaguely familiar to Elle, except for the twins Emory and Livy. Elle knows those two. Emory and Livy’s mother, Elle’s Aunt Mary, was the only Gallant her mom kept in touch with after her father left, but Elle lost touch with them years ago. Emory and Livy flank Lottie. No surprise there, Elle thinks. Kissasses. THE DRIVE HOME AFTER GALLANT THANKSGIVING. KENNY’S NOT A FAN Elle rests the side of her forehead on the passenger-side window, watching house after house swish by. The sky is gold with streaks of hot pink, deep blue, and white. They pass three front-yard football games and two kids tossing colorful leaves in the air. As they drive along, Elle counts seventeen garbage cans overflowing with overstuffed bags, five of them tipped over on their sides. Kenny breaks the silence. “So, was that a Banksy?” Elle looks confused, and Kenny continues, “That Lottie lady. Was she for real? Or did your aunt Mary hire a performance artist?” Elle explains she only knows the legend of Lottie. She goes on to say Lottie pays for the other cousins’ country club memberships and their kid’s private schools. After Kenny’s scoffs, she reluctantly mentions that Lottie had also paid for Elle’s cousins to attend college. When Kenny notes that Elle has student loans, she says, “Lottie didn’t pay for mine. I was five when Dad bolted, I didn’t count as family after that.” As Kenny announces she’s better off without those Gallants, Elle turns her attention outside the window. A black cat with a white diamond-shaped patch on its chest prances alongside the road with a turkey carcass dangling from its mouth. ON THE ROAD TO BURGER BLISS THE DRIVE PROVES LOTTIE’S CONTROL NEVER TAKES A BACK SEAT Elle pulls up to a four-way stop, and Lottie shouts, “You. Stop!” Elle slams the breaks. Lottie points to an overly spray-tanned man in a white G-Wagon, rolling through the stop sign, exclaims it is not his turn, and instructs Elle to go. Once they hit the main road, Elle stops at a red light. Lottie stretches out her neck and watches the adjacent light go from green to yellow to red. Before Elle has time to move her foot from the brake to the gas, Lottie yells for her to go. As Elle continues down Creekview Road, Lottie squirms, crossing her left leg over her right then switching to her right leg over her left, while commenting on Elle’s driving. At the next traffic light, Lottie leans over the dash, locking her eyes upward to let Elle know when it’s time to accelerate. “Yours is about to go green. Be ready this time.” As soon as Elle pulls into the Burger Bliss parking lot, Lottie punches her finger in the direction of a space by the entrance. Elle jokingly offers to let Lottie drive on the way back, but Lottie declines. “Oh, heavens no. I’m a horrible driver.” FIRST LUNCH AT BURGER BLISS SETTING DETAILS REVEAL LOTTIE’S ENTITLEMENT, DISREGARD, AND JUDGMENT Lottie sashays in like she owns the place. At the drink station, Lottie fills her tumbler with ice and unsweet tea, before grabbing a handful of lemon wedges from the plastic container. She holds each slice up to the light, one by one. This takes forever. After dropping the wad of rejected lemons back in the same container, she scrapes way down to the bottom in search of fresher options. A line is forming behind them as Elle breaks out in sweat. Once Lottie finally settles on three suitable lemon wedges, she meticulously removes the seeds with her pinky nail, flicking the seeds back into the lemon bin. Elle casts an apologetic smile at the couple behind them. They stare back at her, arching their brows in unison, and Elle’s heart lurches into a clumsy pounding jog. Lottie takes her sweet time squeezing the juice from each individual lemon into her tea, tosses the mangled rinds back in with the fresh lemons, and strolls to her booth. Elle apologizes to the couple as she frantically fishes out the manhandled lemons. Autographed headshots from Lottie’s movie days and a few group photos with her sisters from the 1950s line the bead-board booth. Lottie gestures with her waffle fry to a photo on Elle’s side of the booth and points out her sister Joanie, who was an actress too, but not Hollywood famous like her. Lottie comments on Elle’s “atrocity” of a wrist tattoo, weight, and unkempt hair. Elle compliments Lottie’s vintage Gucci Horsebit bag, and Lottie shoots her a looks that says, As if you know anything about handbags. As they are about to leave, Lottie gives a chubby couple the stink-eye, referring to them with a snarky nickname the Glutens. She warns Elle to watch out for those two—they should cut back on wheat, and they’re booth stalkers. MORNING ERRANDS AROUND BIRMINGHAM REVEAL MORE ABOUT LOTTIE’S VERVE AND ELLE’S STRUGGLE TO KEEP UP They swing by the Botanical Gardens to snap a few photos of Lottie in front of a memorial garden she donated in her late husband’s name. Lottie insists the gardens should be the first stop, due to the flattering morning light. Then they hit a holistic wellness shop. Lottie swings open the door, setting off a jarring clamor of windchimes. A thick gust of patchouli and stinky B vitamin knocks Elle in the face. She holds her breath as Lottie barrels down the aisle, picking up every candle to take a long whiff before returning it to the wrong spot on the shelf. Elle follows behind her, repositioning the candles to realign with the correct shelf labels. She doesn’t want the next customer to mistake Ginger Masala for Muskmelon. Lottie buys a bottle of CBD oil for her arthritis and a pumice stone on a long stick, so Elle can exfoliate the balls of her feet later. The last stop before lunch is Kinko’s. Lottie scrolls through Elle’s phone’s camera roll and selects her favorite garden photo from earlier. She then hits the App Store icon and assesses the photo editing app options. “Look at me,” Lottie says, holding the phone up to Elle’s face. The app requires face recognition for the purchase. It takes a while for Lottie to edit the photo to her liking. Lottie sends the photo to the clerk and has him print it out on glossy eight-by-ten photo paper. SUB-SETTINGS IN SAN DIEGO AFTER ELLE FLIES ACROSS THE COUNTRY TO BE AT HER FATHER’S SIDE AFTER HIS HEART ATTACK. SHE HASN’T SEEN HIM IN 30 YEARS RIDE FROM SAN DIEGO TO THE HOSPITAL SUB-SETTING CIRCUMSTANCES MIRROR ELLE’S ANXIOUSNESS ABOUT THE UNKNOWN, AND OUT-OF-CONTROL FEELINGS The driver spins Elle’s bag on its wheels and tilts it in ready position. “We need to go, Ms. Gallant. I was told to get you to the hospital ASAP. It’s not far.” A chill runs through her body as he speeds down the highway, weaving through traffic and hammering his horn at anyone who dares to even look over their shoulder to check their blind spot. There’s been no time to process why her father wanted her by his side. Or maybe there has been, but her brain wouldn’t allow itself to go there. She’s freefalling emotionally, mentally, and physically in a car hurling head on into the fiery unknown. She’s frozen in the out-of-control of it all. Her imagination, which is sometimes her friend and more times her enemy, is blank for the first time in her life. The vivid visions that have helped her escape, for better or for worse, are all of the sudden on pause. She wants to hear her mom or Kenny’s voice to calm herself down, but she’s afraid to take her eyes off the road blurring by or take her hand off the handle above the window long enough to call them. The driver, whose name she doesn’t know, screeches into the covered entrance of the hospital. He sends a quick text and hands her a card. “Call me when you’re ready to head to the hotel. Take all the time you need. Leave your bag.” He hurries out of the car and opens her door. “Go on in.” He points to the glass doors and glances at his phone. “He’ll be waiting for you in the lobby.” “Who?” “Your brother.” “My what?” INSIDE THE SAN DIEGO HOSPITAL SUB-SETTING REFLECTS THE FOREIGN AND THE FAMILIAR Elle stands in the hospital’s main lobby, staring at a man roughly ten years younger than her. His eyes are the exact same shade of steel blue as hers, and he’s a few inches taller. His hair is shiny, straight, and deep brown, unlike her wavey golden blond. His skin is darker and more olive toned. But he looks like her—so familiar and foreign all at once. He’s rocking from one foot to the other, and so is she. He’s anxious, just like her. They introduce themselves in an awkward exchange. A laugh erupts from somewhere inside her. A few people are milling around on their phones. But that’s about it. The chairs are empty, except for an older man sleeping upright in a chair with the back of his head against the wall and his mouth open wide. They step onto the elevator. She wipes her sticky palms on the sides of her dress and stares up at the numbers changing above the doors. It lands on six. There’s a deafening ding. The doors open, and they go left. There’s something comforting about the stark lights and antiseptic smell of the hospital. Elle chalks it up to familiarity, and subconsciously shifts to auto-pilot, clinging to the only thing she knows right now. She’s in a hospital, and she knows hospitals. She can’t feel her legs, but is aware of how fast they are moving her down the hall in a direction she doesn’t want to go. Her mind is blank again. It’s almost as if none of this is happening. Because that’s what she want so badly—for none of this to be happening.
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